Unify is Willis Towers Watson’s integration, automation and governance platform that allows you to transform your risk and capital management and reporting processes to achieve a higher standard of performance.

The Challenge

Ever-growing business and regulatory changes are placing demands on insurers’ actuarial modelling and risk analysis. The requirement for richer and deeper analysis, more frequently and quickly and all within strict governance and control frameworks, creates a challenge that demands transformation within an organisation’s business process.

An insurer’s complete actuarial and business process is likely to include a wide variety of activities beyond the traditional actuarial modelling calculations. These activities could include:

  • Multiple systems and manual steps between them
  • Ad-hoc calculations and other manual processes
  • Actuarial interventions and governance reviews
  • Allowance for any errors and repeat work

Consideration of all of these steps provides a holistic understanding of the entire business process and allows for an assessment of the changes necessary to deliver the transformation required. Such a transformation should be able to use existing systems, provide automated governance and manage and automate an end-to-end process while saving time and reducing costs.

The Unify solution

Unify has been developed specifically to meet the requirements of successful process transformation. The enterprise-wide risk and actuarial systems integration platform is a leading-edge solution built on a secure and managed data repository, using proven Microsoft technologies to:

  • Enable integration with Willis Towers Watson risk software solutions and other third party software.
  • Facilitate the design and implementation of workflows.
  • Provide complete automation of holistic modelling and reporting processes at the press of a button.
  • Support best practice governance with an unparalleled level of transparency and audit readiness

The aim of Unify is to provide completely governed oversight of any process. It provides integration between different systems and processes, automates repetitive manual steps and records version histories and any user interactions required along the way.
Unify was first introduced in 2015 and has since had many new features added to make it an even easier system to support a company’s business processes.

Overview

In a previous article Unify: Integration. Automation. Governance we gave an overview of the system’s key features to help companies model their business processes, including the workflow design tool. The flexibility of Unify allows companies to create workflows that are specific to the underlying processes and business architecture of each company. In addition, all of the objects used within each step of the process can be locked down and stored within Unify, guaranteeing what will be run and ensuring that it is easily repeatable, both for future exercises and to reproduce results at a later date (see figure 1).

Unify also automatically produces an audit trail with every job that is run in the system and the integrity of this audit trail is maintained through tight versioning of items such as models, data and assumptions.

Figure 1: Best practice reporting process

Figure 1: Best practice reporting process
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The processes modelled within Unify can range from simply running an actuarial model to running the entire integrated reporting process, including:

  • Data validation and review
  • Review of assumptions
  • Running the models
  • Production of model results
  • All required governance steps to generate final, approved reports.

Figure 2 is an example of a simple linear process diagram and shows how this can be developed into a workflow within Unify.

Figure 2: Process diagram and Unify workflow example

Figure 2: Process diagram and Unify workflow example
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As a web-based system, Unify is designed to work with many devices – from a desktop to a mobile phone. On a day to day basis, users can access the system via the web interface to run the workflows as “jobs” and to monitor and review progress of these jobs. The web interface allows users to navigate easily around the system, with a user-defined folder structure providing access to the secure repository.

In addition to the web-based interface, there is also a desktop application (Unify Workflow Designer) used to design and build the workflows and also provides the ability to adapt existing workflows as processes change.

Refining Unify: New features and enhancements

Since its introduction, we have made a number of enhancements to both the web-based interface and the Workflow Designer. We have also made the platform more robust and resilient and made it easier to design workflows that model business processes through the introduction of a number of new features:

1. Web-user interface

We have enhanced the web-user interface to:

  • Make it easier to understand the jobs that have been run
  • Provide more detail and supporting documentation for the responses to notifications
  • Include features to identify information stored in the repository
  • Provide the ability to restart jobs from user defined points.

Understanding jobs

A number of new features help users understand what happens when a job is run. The job details page now includes a job hierarchy showing all of the sub-workflows that have been run as part of a single job submission. If the workflow process has been built using a number of sub-workflows (as we’d suggest based on best practice) then having access to this “full” hierarchy of the workflows run can be invaluable. The job audit report can also be produced based on this full job hierarchy helping to make the understanding of the full process much easier.

In addition, we have a new view of the workflow run showing the activity time. This helps understanding how long the time is being taken during workflow runs and can highlight the areas to update when reviewing the performance of each workflow.

Figure 3 Job Details page showing Job Hierarchy and Activity Time information

Figure 3 Job Details page showing Job Hierarchy and Activity Time information
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Notification enhancements

A number of new features have been added to the user interaction capabilities of Unify. These make the system easier to use, allowing for the capture of additional comments and supporting documentation as part of the Unify governance of workflows when making decisions. In addition, we have added features to notifications to allow for times when the user assigned to respond to a task is not available or is taking longer to respond than expected.

Request response, review and approval activities can now be sent to multiple users, groups of users and / or the job owner (i.e. the person who submitted the job). While the workflow is running it is also possible to add recipients to the notifications and send reminders to them to respond. This ensures that, even if the original recipients are not available, someone can be tasked with responding to the request.

Figure 4: Ability to provide additional comments when responding to notifications

Figure 4: Ability to provide  additional comments when responding to notifications

Identifying information stored in the repository

The initial release of Unify included version control of the objects stored in the repository. This meant that multiple copies of models, workflows and datasets could be stored and as newer copies of those objects were added, Unify would include them under a new, system defined, version number. It was therefore always possible to go back to a previous version of the object, but this did require knowledge of the specific version number. With the introduction of attributes, objects can now have labels added for each new version so that they are much easier to find and work with.

Attributes can also be used to identify a specific version of an object while running a workflow job. Workflow arguments and variables can be used to identify which version to choose which makes the version control feature incredibly flexible and allows, for example, analysis of movement workflows to be developed easily to pick up “last year’s” or “last month’s” final assumptions and results for comparison.

Restart jobs

The ability to restart workflows at stages other than at the initial point in the workflow has been a feature in previous versions of Unify, however, this was largely a manual process that required careful understanding of what had been stored in the Unify repository and when. While this is still important, the ability to restart jobs and manage the results of previous steps is now entirely handled by Unify.

Users can now add “Persist” activities to a workflow, enabling jobs to be restarted from a specific point in the workflow should it be needed. This means that if a job fails or needs to be restarted for any other reason it is not necessary to run it again from the beginning. Restart points are available for finished jobs of any status (i.e. completed, cancelled, etc.) which contain "Persist" activities that were executed and completed during the job.

Figure 5: Restart Job capability in Unify v2.0

Figure 5: Restart Job capability  in Unify v2.0
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2. Workflow Designer

The Workflow Designer enables the user to design bespoke workflows including software calculations, user review, interaction and approval. It is a graphical “drag and drop” tool based on Windows Workflow Foundation but with many additional activities added to allow for common insurance company processes; including polling a location to search for a particular file, executing macros, executing command line and PowerShell, and the ability to transform data using SSIS packages.

In recent releases we have added new features to the Workflow Designer making it easier to develop workflows that mirror a company’s actual business processes and to help them understand and debug the workflows while they are running. These features include new activities such as send email, reading and writing to Excel documents and writing messages to the log to help with understanding the progress of workflows as they are running.

Also included are multiple enhancements to the request activities. This includes the parameterisation of the message content, custom reminder periods, the ability to add supplementary comments and files to a response, as well as allowing any comments provided with a response to be used as input to a later step in the workflow.

One new feature of the Workflow Designer is a job monitor view. This gives a real-time view of the progress of a workflow as it is running. This shows which jobs are currently running in the Unify environment and the activity that the job is currently processing. The current activity is highlighted in yellow in the Workflow Designer and as the activity completes and moves onto the next activity, so does the highlighting.

Figure 6: Job monitor view in Workflow Designer showing the current jobs running with the current activity highlighted

Figure 6: Job monitor view in Workflow Designer showing the  current jobs running with the current activity highlighted
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3. Unify platform and infrastructure

In addition to the web interface and the Workflow Designer, a number of changes have taken place behind the scenes of Unify. These additional changes improve the resilience and robustness of the platform and of the day to day administration, setup and management of Unify environments.

To help improve the resilience of the overall system to the failure of one or more components, we have introduced the following features and upgrades:

  • Ability to detect whether an execution agent is active or not
  • Improved communication mechanism between the job controller and the execution agents
  • Retention of job state information in the database allowing for the proper reinstatement of jobs when the job controller undergoes a stop and restart
  • Ability to suspend the job controller which allows the execution agents to be purged of tasks over time as their workflows go idle.

This last feature allows for the system to be put into a state where server maintenance and operating system and security updates can be carried out without having to cancel jobs.

Figure 7: The Unify system status page showing the status of the job controller and the execution agents associated with it. The ability to suspend the job controller is also available on this page

Figure 7: The Unify system status page showing the status of the job controller and the execution agents associated with it. The ability to suspend the job controller is also available on this page
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It is now easier for system administrators to set up and configure Unify. The system can be set up and configured in an environment where users of the system are in one or more active directory domains which could be different to the Unify servers’ domain. Administrators can also use Unify’s centralised configuration feature to simplify the configuration of all of the components linked to the Unify environment.

Unify has a robust approach to the governance of jobs, which means retaining information about past runs and the associated application logs. Any logs that are no longer required are periodically removed from the system, saving on data storage requirements.

A relevant solution for now and the future

Unify’s new features allow companies to better manage and run their business processes and enhance their understanding of how their workflows are performing. Users can now more easily identify performance bottlenecks and areas for further improvement in their processes. The introduction of attributes and the capability to restart a job based on feedback from clients will help simplify the development of complex workflows and ensure that running these workflows in a real-time business environment is more resilient to network and other IT failures.

User feedback, plus our own research and development processes help us to monitor and create further improvements to Unify. This focus and investment ensures Unify remains a relevant solution to support your business both now and in the future.